A 1998 interview with Robert Moog for myLaunch, a long gone music site.
A Chat with Robert Moog
BY AL RIDENOUR
By the late seventies, when much of the music industry was ready to sign the death certificate on the analog synthesizer, Dr. Robert Moog was not convinced. Two decades later those “progressive” voices of digital ascendancy now sound as quaint as the blips and bleetings of any noises conjured by Moog’s creation. The analog synth is back, and retro-futurism is a self-contradiction to be reckoned with.
Though Robert Moog today lives in Asheville, North Carolina, somewhat outside the orbital path of space-age-bachelor-pad music-hounds or electronica enthusiasts, he is familiar with the musicians and moogy overtones behind the music of Beck, Stereolab, Moog Cookbook, and others.
I’ve met a lot of the musicians in bands like Stereolab,” he says. “We look forward to seeing each other at NAMM (National Association of Music Merchandisers) shows and such. We’re good friends with Roger and Brian of The Moog Cookbook. I think their act is a real hoot.”
The Moog Cookbook’s satirically misbegotten all-moog covers, which target the music industry’s hunger to exploit a trend, have particular appeal for Dr. Moog, who recalls with mixed feelings the flood of “Moog” albums that brought his name to the American public. “Some were enjoyable, but then there are others which, in their time, were just cynical, joyless attempts to cash in on the sudden public awareness of Switched-on Bach. Listening to those is painful, even now.”
Name recognition aside, those days of backlogged orders for the new instrument were, Moog says, “by and large no fun at all. First I was running my own business, without really knowing anything about business and without understanding how to deal with people. Then I sold out to a venture capitalist who was very good at making money but real difficult to work for. Then my company became a division of Norlin Music, which at that time was stuffed with rank upon rank of guys (plus an occasional gal) with more testosterone than brains. Finally, in 1978, I was able to pick up my marbles and leave. Since then it’s been a lot easier and nicer.”
Nestled in a more tranquil setting between North Carolina’s Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, Moog began his current venture, founding Big Briar Musical Instruments, a company devoted to the manufacture and development of the theremin. Looking like an old-fashioned wooden radio cabinet with two protruding antennae, the theremin produces a sound something like a musical saw, modulated by the performer passing his hands through its electromagnetic fields. If the theremin’s name is not familiar, its sound is — through the soundtracks of countless science fiction movies and the trippy oscillations of the Beach Boy’s “Good Vibrations.” The return to the theremin was a sort of homecoming for Moog, who had spent his high school years building them from plans found in hobbyist magazines. And it was from the theremin that his work with the synthesizer eventually evolved. Moog recalls, “in the early days of our modular analog synthesizers, we wanted to be able to connect all kinds of performance interfaces… Now that I think of it, we did build a couple of experimental theremin controllers back then, but never made them professionally.” Studio pragmatics and the democratic voice of the mainstream musician, of course voted the theremin out and the keyboard in.
But within the last couple years Moog appears to have completed another revolution in the circle of his career, returning to these earlier notions of using the theremin as an interface for sounds not generated by the instrument’s own transistors. Today, along with a wide range of traditional theremins, Big Briar offers the Ethervox, a traditional theremin with the added implementation of MIDI software. Now, the same wave of a finger or twitch of wrist that previously modulated the theremin’s voice can summon an entire orchestra to service. The reception of this untraditional marriage of analog and digital technology has been positive. “For instance,” Moog explains, “in the mode that we call ‘Chromatic,’ the space around the pitch antenna is quantized, and you can play scales, arpeggios, or drum sets just by moving your hands in space. That’s startling at first, but then it’s a lot of fun. ”
Perhaps because of his long association with analog music, and the unique musical discipline required in playing the theremin, Moog is naturally wary of the abuses of digital sampling, and is quick to distinguish this new package from “talent amplifiers” and “instruments that give the illusion of making it easy to produce music, by automatically generating musical patterns.” The Ethervox is primarily a tool for professionals and will be on tour with a number of recent visitors to Big Briar’s showroom including Bela Fleck (the Flecktones) and Pamelia Stickney of Geggy Tah & Kitaro.
As eclectic as the Ethervox’s appeal is Moog’s attitude towards pop music. His comments on the controversial topic of New Age music (prompted by conversation about Kitaro’s use of the Ethervox) characteristically reach beyond lazy categorization. While the New Age may idolize the “all-natural,” the rainforest, and the dolphin, Moog finds no contradiction in the genre’s hallmark use of synthesized sources. “Lots of people confuse ‘familiar’ with ‘natural'” he says. “Is a piano ‘natural.’ Not on your life! Go out in the woods, – any woods, – and look for a piano under a rock. You’d better not hold your breath until you find one! There’s a very good fit between New Age music and synthesis. This is because New Age music lends itself to sounds that are complex and slowly evolving, which are the sorts of sounds that synthesizers are particularly good at producing.”
A native New Yorker, Moog is somewhat disenchanted with the urban world, and though frequently doing business in the metropolis, he is always eager to keep the visits short. In fact, he admits, “if I didn’t become an engineer, I would probably have become a forester.” Comfortably ensconced in the mountains of North Carolina, Bob Moog can look back and claim to have literally “writing the book” on electronic music. He recently rewrote the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on “electronic music,” after all. Certainly, it should come as no surprise then if the good doctor should continue to update the history as he appears to be doing with the Ethervox’s latest combination of digital and analog technology.